Illumination Entertainment, the team behind the Minions, branch out into the world of all talking, dancing, singing creatures great and small, mashing that up with the wildly popular phenomenon of singing competition reality shows. The result, “Sing,” is an amusing riff on genres, a “Zootopia Idol,” if you will, and it comes as a surprise that someone hadn’t thought of this combination already.
But while the film takes its introductory cues from shows like “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “X Factor,” with an all-too-brief audition montage that is jam-packed with truly wonderful moments (A water buffalo crooning Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”? Twerking bunnies? All that and more), it transforms into an old school backstage musical that celebrates the magic of putting on a show.
Matthew McConaughey voices shyster theater owner Buster Moon, a koala with a passion for the art of the stage and some seriously overdue bills on the mortgage for his beloved Moon Theater. He’s a scrappy, lovable, ever-optimistic guy — and eternal salesman — who believes that when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up. His buddy Eddie (John C. Reilly), a slacker rich kid llama, is a soft touch, but even he is done investing his parents’ money in Buster’s misguided productions.
We seem to be shooting our best movie stars into outer space with alarming frequency. George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon and now Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have all been rocketed out of the stratosphere. Perhaps they’re trying to make the best impression possible with alien life forms. Maybe they’re seeking to colonize new worlds of moviegoers. In any case, the stars have never looked so starry.
And the movies — “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian” — have been among the best blockbusters in recent years. Space isn’t just the last frontier; it’s the new Western.
In 2015, director Justin Kurzel and actors Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard teamed up for a prestigious cinematic adaptation, a bloody, mad take on “Macbeth.” In 2016, the trio moved from Shakespeare to ... a video game? Taking on the popular “Assassin’s Creed” game seems like quite the left turn, and while the results aren’t as striking as the previous outing — it’s pretty uneven — the film is thoroughly stamped with Kurzel’s unique visual style, which makes for an exciting, if strange ride.
There is a complicated and deep mythology behind the game, and the film follows it mostly faithfully. Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is a death row inmate with a violent childhood. He is put to death by lethal injection, but wakes up in a clinic at the shadowy Abstergo corporation. The lead scientist there, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard) claims she’s researching “the cure to violence.”
Every generation gets the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” that speaks most trenchantly to the evolving cultural issues of our time. Apparently, ours is “Why Him?” where the young suitor isn’t racially other, but from a completely different planet when it comes to culture, values and social norms. That planet? Silicon Valley.
In “Why Him?,” directed by John Hamburg, written by Hamburg, Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill, Stanford senior Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), invites her tight-knit Michigan family to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, Laird (James Franco). It’s only appropriate, seeing as their first introduction to the man was his unexpected naked rear on their video chat screen at dad Ned’s (Bryan Cranston) birthday celebration. And when the Flemings land in the Bay Area, they’re in for a cultural odyssey they could never have expected.
It’s right there in the title, and “Rogue One” proves to be most definitely a “Star Wars” story. As a spinoff chapter with a cast of new characters and a darker, grittier look and tone, the possibilities were endless for just how different “Rogue One” could be. The wait is over and the results are in: It doesn’t break the mold in terms of franchise formula, and it’s an enjoyable installment in the “Star Wars” canon. However, it’s not much more than that.
The title separates “Rogue One” from “Episodes” 1-7, but it feels like watching an episode of a series, despite the self-contained story. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards, it uses the same well-established cinematic language of “Star Wars.” In terms of the timeline, consider “Rogue One” to be around Episode 3½, a chapter of Rebel Alliance history briefly alluded to in “Episode 4 — A New Hope.”
Rage radiates silently from Lee Chandler, the antisocial handyman played by Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” While fixing faucets and fans for the residents of a working-class Boston suburb, Lee is polite as can be, although it doesn’t take many drinks before he’s pummeling innocent bystanders in a bar. As we’ll eventually learn, Lee’s violence is really directed at himself.
Affleck is something to behold in this poignant drama by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), but that won’t surprise anyone who’s been following the actor for the past 20 years. Since his breakout role in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” (1995), Affleck has become the art-house counterpart to his movie-star brother, consistently turning in quiet, compelling performances in such under-the-radar films as “Gerry” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Affleck essentially carries his latest movie — he’s in nearly every scene — and does so in his usual understated, effortless way.
“Collateral Beauty” should win some kind of award for Best Execution of a Truly Dreadful Concept. Chock-a-block with magnetic movie stars, and shot beautifully by talented cinematographer Maryse Alberti, all twinkling lights and Christmas in the city, it looks like an important and meaningful film. That’s all smoke and mirrors. Stars and cinematography can’t save the story, which is a misguided tale filled with armchair philosophizing and ultimately meaningless twists.
It feels as though screenwriter Allan Loeb thought up the term “collateral beauty,” thought it was neat, and then reverse-engineered a story where the characters could say “collateral beauty” a lot. “Look for the collateral beauty,” they say. Does that refer to Mr. Rogers’ idea of looking for the helpers in a crisis? Not really, nope. It’s a phrase that seems like something the teenage Wes Bentley from “American Beauty” would have invented while chasing a plastic bag down the street with a camcorder.
Barry Jenkins’ beautiful “Moonlight” seems to have more in common with poetry than with a typical narrative film. It’s less a story than a collection of moments, which leaves its viewer feeling moved and changed, as if you’ve spent time in someone else’s dreams and woke up understanding who they are. Based on a work by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (its first incarnation was lyrically titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”), it’s a three-act drama unfolding over two decades, in which a gay black man comes of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.
We first meet Chiron as a 10-year-old nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert); the action then moves forward to Chiron as a teen (Ashton Sanders), and finally an adult whose street name is Black (Trevante Rhodes). The child Chiron is wide-eyed and mostly silent; he’s wondering why he feels the way he does about other boys, and why his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) doesn’t seem to love him. That boy vanishes into the teen, bullied at school but beginning to know what he wants, then flows into the man — who still, as an old friend tells him, “can’t say more than three words at a time.”
“Princess” is what the demigod Maui calls Moana, the teenage namesake of Disney’s latest animated film. Moana doesn’t want the title — it sounds a little condescending — but Maui persists. “You’re in a dress and you’ve got an animal sidekick,” he points out. “You’re a princess.”
That’s a stereotype Disney itself has helped create since 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but the studio has been steadily updating its attitude for the gender-equal 21st century. “Tangled,” about a rebellious Rapunzel, was an early attempt in 2010, but it was “Frozen” (2013) that turned girl power into box-office gold and topped the Billboard charts with the hear-me-roar anthem “Let It Go.” Although “Moana” may not strike the same chords — despite several catchy songs co-written by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — it’s a spirited and beautifully animated adventure story that never sells its young heroine short.
If you like a little sour lemon juice in your holiday eggnog, “Bad Santa 2” just might suit your taste. This sequel to the anti-sentimental comedy “Bad Santa” — a modern classic from 2003 — reunites its main cast for another round of heartless behavior and low-stooping jokes. Even an R-rated Christmas comedy, though, should offer us a little comfort and joy, something “Bad Santa 2” seems determined not to do.
Billy Bob Thornton returns as Willie Soke, the safecracking Saint Nick, along with Tony Cox as his elfin helpmate, Marcus. When we last saw him, Willie had created an ersatz family with Sue (Lauren Graham), a woman with a convenient Santa Claus fetish, and chubby Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a boy with more heart than brains. Thirteen years later, Sue is gone, Thurman is on his own and Willie is back to his hard-drinking ways. The film opens with Willie writing a note and sticking his head in the oven.
Not succeeding as a World War II drama, spy thriller or love story, “Allied” is what you will find in the dictionary if you look up “insipid.” It’s hard to squander the star power of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard together, especially if they’re handsomely costumed and smooching a lot, but somehow it has been done. If it was a student-thesis feature in film school, it would barely earn a passing grade. It is vanilla banality run amok.
Here we have Pitt at his poker-faced worst, playing a deadly Canadian spy/assassin parachuting behind German lines, donning retro-stylish civilian disguises and carrying off machine gun raids resembling rejected outtakes from “Inglourious Basterds.” Let me repeat that so you don’t think I have made a mistake. Pitt plays a two-fisted, rock-hard espionage agent and trigger man — from Canada. By speaking in an accent that has never been within 1,000 miles of Montreal.
What better way to round out the month of November 2016 than with a hectic, over-stuffed biopic about an eccentric billionaire despot who uses his inherited wealth to make a giant mess of things in both the entertainment industry and federal government? Truly, there’s a deep sense of irony in the release date of Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes film, “Rules Don’t Apply.” And yet, it would still be a stinker even if it wasn’t cloaked in a dark shroud of cultural and political relevancy. It’s just that bad.
Beatty, on screen for the first time in 15 years, plays the notoriously weird Hollywood and aviation mogul Hughes in the film, which he directed and co-wrote. He has rounded up every single up-and-coming young actor, his wife Annette Bening, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and no less than four credited film editors to aid in this endeavor, and yet the finished product is still a profoundly annoying and torturously long unstructured meander through five years of Hughes’ life, from 1959 to 1964.
As soon as the familiar twinkly score starts up and the eerie blue Warner Brothers logo appears on screen before “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” you’re transported back to that oh-so-familiar magical world spun by the keys of J.K. Rowling. It feels like plunging into a bath. But it’s definitely not all-too-familiar — there isn’t a butterbeer or an owl in sight. “Fantastic Beasts” is “Harry Potter” with adults, with the added pizzazz of all the salacious trappings of 1926 Jazz Age New York to spice up the style.
Our hero is a tousle-haired, stoop-shouldered ginger from the fair isle of Britain, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He arrives in New York City the way many of the immigrants who made this country great did, through Ellis Island. But the one shady thing he smuggles through customs is a battered suitcase that growls, hisses and rattles. Those would be the fantastic beasts with which the film is concerned — they’re outlawed in the U.S. magical world, which is strictly kept secret from the No-Majs (aka Muggles).
Every generation needs a defining teen movie, and “The Edge of Seventeen” just might be that film for this generation. The icing on the cake is that it’ll likely appeal even more to older audiences who can look back on their teenage years with a mix of fondness, sympathy and embarrassment. Female filmmakers are often behind some of the best teen classics — “Clueless,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Juno,” and “Mean Girls” — and “The Edge of Seventeen” enters this echelon as the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig, who also wrote the screenplay.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as the misanthropic Nadine, a misfit who’s never found her tribe, aside from her only friend Krista (Hayley Lu Richardson), a ray of sunshine and goodness. When Krista collides romantically with Nadine’s hunky, golden boy older brother Darien (Blake Jenner), Nadine is thrown into a suicidal spiral, a spinout of epic proportions, because in high school, the social stakes are always that high.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ” is not a war movie in the traditional sense. There are battle scenes, and brothers-in-arms banter, sure, but like its pioneering technology, on a pure story level “Billy Lynn’s” also pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from this genre.
The film is a precisely observed portrait of a young man slowly realizing his own trauma and agency over the course of a single football game. In other words, not the movie one might peg to usher in an entirely new way of experiencing images on the big screen, with its hyper-real 120 frames per second. But that’s Ang Lee for you, one of the rare filmmakers adept at both embracing and enhancing a story’s literary origins with measured spectacle.
If there is any reason, besides an annual craving for cinematic Christmas cheer, to see “Almost Christmas,” that reason is Mo’Nique. Heck, the Mo’Nique bloopers at the end of the film are worth the price of admission. So thank you, writer/director David E. Talbert for finally giving Mo’Nique a decent role after her Oscar-winning turn in 2009’s “Precious” — we needed her back on the big screen.
Talbert does right by essentially turning the cameras on and letting Mo’Nique do her thing as the eccentric, motormouth Aunt May of the Meyers clan, swathed in caftans, sporting numerous wigs and spouting stories about her glamorous life as a backup singer for global superstars. You’ll wish for more of her, and in fact, if “Almost Christmas” has any sort of sequel or spin off, it’d be criminal if it wasn’t a prequel focused on Aunt May’s backstory. Mo’Nique is a treasure, and “Almost Christmas” is a fine reminder of that.
Movies about the first connection between humans and extraterrestrials tend to follow one of several standard routes. The “Alien,” “Predator” and “Independence Day” series were alien-blasting jamborees. The early Superman movies, “E.T.” and “The Iron Giant” built an optimistic tradition of friends from space and misunderstandings that could be overcome. Paranoid thrillers like “The Mist” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” showed earthlings helplessly outclassed by the new arrivals.
Denis Villeneuve’s breathtaking, thought-provoking “Arrival” follows a different, seldom trod path. The focus is serious human drama, gripping in a way science-fiction films achieve all too rarely. The film is intricately handsome and rarely showy, flawlessly made and earnest-minded.
Imagine a less spry and agile Indiana Jones and you have Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard professor of religious iconography and symbology (not a real academic discipline). He’s riddled his way from the page to the screen in the wildly popular “The DaVinci Code,” and “Angels & Demons,” adapted from Dan Brown’s series of quasi-religious, art history-inspired mystery novels most likely to be found on the shelf of an Airbnb rental. Now imagine a less spry and agile Indiana Jones in “The Hangover,” with shades of “Contagion” wafting about, and you have the third film in the trilogy, “Inferno.”
In “Inferno,” Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital bed with one heck of a hangover. He’s beset by horrible visions of wrecked bodies with backwards heads covered in skin pustules, men in beaked masks, a mysterious woman on a fiery street. He’s got a head wound, no idea where he is, and the worst migraine of all time. Director Ron Howard, who also helmed the previous two installments, takes the head trauma as an opportunity to experiment with an edgier form and style. The screeching noises, flashing lights, rapid editing and queasy camera movements will make you too feel like you’re experiencing head trauma.
Fans of Mabel “Madea” Simmons’ longtime foil Joe will be happy to see the wisecracking character let loose — even looser than usual — in Tyler Perry’s “Boo! A Madea Halloween.”
Joe goes above and beyond in his lewd quips. And he gets to bind and gag a trespassing clown.
Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) will use a gun if the situation calls for it, but he prefers to use his fists. His punches in “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” don’t so much land as explode like cannon shots, decimating car windows, cement walls and the faces of his enemies: soldiers turned mercenaries with grown-out buzz cuts. Reacher’s former military himself, an ex-major (emphasis on the “ex”) in the Military Police Corps.
Now he roams the land solving crimes, enacting justice, and calling the current commanding officer of the 110th, Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), to commiserate about the job. When Susan’s arrested for espionage, Jack goes into full Reacher mode — he’s a bit like a very violent, near psychic MacGyver — to spring Susan from the clink and uncover a shady military arms deal.
The modern studio comedy increasingly feels limp, suffocated by the financial imperatives of high-concept plots and desperately in search of signs of life. Greg Mottola’s “Keeping Up With the Joneses” is, like many before it, fine enough. But it mostly goes down as another collection of funny people stuck in too narrowly clichéd roles in an overly familiar story.
It’s now been more than 10 years since “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and five since “Bridesmaids.” (Feel old yet?) There have, undoubtedly, been good comedies since, namely things with Melissa McCarthy in them, Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” and anything Wes Anderson is putting out. But there has been perhaps no greater casualty to the constrictions of blockbuster-centric Hollywood than comedy. The freedom necessary for comedy to thrive is mostly found on television; the action is with “Broad City,” “Atlanta,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and others.